ALAN PERER: RECENT PA HIGH COURT OPINION CREATES RULE OF IMMUNITY FOR CATHOLIC CHURCH
Alan H. Perer
SPK – the law firm of Swensen & Perer
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s July 21, opinion in Rice v. Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, disregards the court’s own prior decisions and creates a judicial rule of immunity for the Catholic Church. With that rule in hand, the church can now rest assured that it may not have to answer to hundreds of sexual abuse victims who were injured by its predator priests.
Up until now, the Supreme Court has mandated that the fact-intensive questions concerning the discovery rule and the doctrine of fraudulent concealment, such as when a plaintiff is on notice of the possible culpability of a defendant in causing harm, are reserved for a jury. The Supreme Court has never before issued an opinion allowing these factual questions to be resolved as a matter of law at the pleadings stage, before the parties had a chance to engage in the discovery process.
Nevertheless, the court decided based on the language in the complaint alone that Renee Rice, who was abused between the ages of 8 and 14 years old in the late 1970s to the early 1980s, did not sue the church in time. Why? Because, according to the court, Rice should have known that the church was at fault for the abuse because she knew she had been abused and knew that her abuser was a priest, employed by the church. The court relied on two Pennsylvania Superior Court cases (Meehan and Baselice) from 2005, decided before anyone knew about the church’s role in an intentional coverup of widespread clergy abuse. Those two cases are outliers in Pennsylvania jurisprudence in that they took these factual questions relating to the discovery rule and fraudulent concealment from the jury and decided them as a matter of law before.
Unfortunately, as of the publication of a 2016 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, we know facts that were not known in 2005. The Grand Jury report informed the public, for the first time, that there had been a systematic cover up by the Catholic Church that permitted pedophile priests, including the priest who sexually abused Rice, to prey upon children. Until that report, police, district attorneys and child-welfare advocates had investigated the church’s potential role for years and found nothing, because the church hid the facts as part of its ongoing scheme. Despite that these facts were hidden from the public for decades and were practically unknowable, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision denies Rice her day in court because she did not undertake an investigation into the church’s role herself.
The implications of this decision on the discovery rule and doctrine of fraudulent concealment claims in Pennsylvania are uncertain. The court has, in effect, created a condition precedent for a plaintiff even to assert that the statute of limitations should be extended under the discovery rule and the fraudulent concealment doctrine. Specifically, under the court’s holding, as soon as a person is injured and knows the identity of the primary defendant, she is on “inquiry notice” of all other potential “secondary” defendants who may have caused or contributed to her injury, even where the defendant has fraudulently concealed its role in causing the harm. Left to be answered in all cases then is what, if any, action must a plaintiff take to create a factual issue for a jury? Would it have been enough for Rice’s parents to have notified the Diocese of Rice’s abuse? Would she have had to institute a lawsuit against the Diocese that would undoubtedly have been dismissed? These questions will undoubtedly create uncertainty regarding future cases involving the discovery rule and fraudulent concealment doctrine’s effect on the statute of limitations.
In fact, in this particular case, the denial of access to a jury to determine these issues may actually trigger constitutional issues, including issues involving equal protection, the right to a jury trial and due process. We are currently exploring these questions further.
The tragedy of the court’s decision is that the hundreds of victims who have been awaiting justice for decades will have to wait even longer and perhaps be denied that justice altogether. Despite that the discovery rule and fraudulent concealment doctrines are judicially created exceptions to the statute of limitations, the court shifts its responsibility to the Pennsylvania Legislature to help the victims of clergy abuse; this even more strongly requires the Pennsylvania legislature to pass House Bill 519, creating a two-year window for abuse survivors to file their suits. The fact that this bill currently sits on majority leader, Kim Ward’s, desk drawer, where she refuses to put it up for a vote in this state Senate, is outrageous and needs to be condemned by all of Pennsylvania’s citizens. Rice and her fellow survivors of sexual abuse deserve better.
Alan H. Perer, a partner with personal injury firm SPK – Swensen & Perer in Pittsburgh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perer represented the plaintiff, Renee Rice in Rice v. Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Reprinted with permission from August 5 2021 issue of the Legal Intelligencer. © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
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